Atheist Teen Challenges
"Church or Fine" Project
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 20, 1997

In Dallas, Texas, a Justice of the Peace has ended his policy of imposing fines and other punishment for juveniles in light of their willingness to attend church services. Zack Smith, a 14-year old boy, was ordered by Justice of the Peace Bruce McDougal to pay a $200 fine for fighting, or begin attending church and Sunday school for eight weeks. "It's not right," said Smith. "I wasn't raised going to church. I'm an atheist. I don't think I should have to go as a punishment."

Press reports note that that Smith was among those targeted in a "zero- tolerance" crackdown at schools. Students found guilty of rowdy or disruptive behavior were issued misdemeanor citations and fined, but in McDougal's court, they had the "option" of attending churches. Zack's mother said, "If you go to church it's because you want to go to church, not because you're forced into it or because it is pushed in your face." Ms. Smith would like to see Zack do community service at a local veterans' hospital.

McDougal announced that he was ending the practice following a meeting between the Dallas County Assistant District Attorney and representatives from the local ACLU.

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Gideons International: Placed
Over 110 Million Bibles

School District Agrees
to End Bible Distribution
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 7, 1997

Public schools in Wahpeton, North Dakota will no longer be permitting the distribution of Christian New Testament Bibles in classes, following the threat of possible legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the parent of a fifth grade student. Charlene Bostad, a Jew, said that she resented the actions of administrators at Central Elementary School in Wahpeton in "taking a firm stand in presenting the New Testament Bible. Central School is promoting the Christian religion by influencing children with New Testament Bibles, which I strongly feel is against my daughter's civil rights."

The Union contacted the school principal. Director Keither Elston warned that the bible pushing violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and noted that, "Parents who send their children to public schools must be able to trust that their children won't be indoctrinated with religious viewpoints which conflict with theirs. This is true whether the parents are Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim or atheist."

The Bibles were distributed by Gideons International, an organization known for putting its New Testament and other literature in hotels and motels across the nation. It describes itself as "an Association of Christian business and professional men," who work in "the promotion of the Gospel of Christ to all people..." The group claims to have placed over 110 million complete Bibles and New Testaments in institutions, lodges, hospitals and public schools throughout the country.

Wahpeton Public Schools Superintendent Michael Connell reluctantly consented to end the practice of allowing Gideon representatives into schools during class time.

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Mother Jones Survey
Shocking To Atheists
by Kevin Courcey (with Conrad Goeringer)
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 1, 1997

Statistics from the December issue of Mother Jones magazine which features an article on the emergent "spirituality" in America ... The publication survey says that 8 percent of U.S. adults are atheists; and that since 1970 the worldwide population of Christians has grown by 60 percent.

Confirming our earlier research, though, Islam remains the fastest growing religious cult on the planet; political scientist Samuel Huntington notes in his epic book, The Clash of Civilizations, that while Christianity grows through a program of proselytizing, Islam thrives through both conversion and sheer reproduction thanks to the high birth rates throughout the Muslim world. Islam has increased its numbers by 104 percent in the same time period. Despite growth, Christianity is losing out in the battle for "customers" in the belief bazaar.

Either way, it is a bad omen for atheism, reason and the cause of secularism. The U.S. religious profile is equally disturbing. A full 20 percent of Americans believe that the second coming of Jesus as prophesied in Revelation will happen "around the year 2000." We expect that percent to climb substantially in the next 24-36 months as "millennium fever" threatens to sweep the U.S. and possibly other parts of the world as well. Some 35 percent of Americans say that "God answers prayers often," and 33 percent insist that the Deity takes time out from his or her task of running the cosmos to speak to them directly.

Of Americans, 69 percent believe in miracles, and 82 percent "believe in the healing power of prayer." We would like to put that claim to a test, though, in the office of the nearest root canal specialist. Fully 81 percent believe that heaven is a real place, and 63 percent accord a similar ontological status to hell. About 30 percent believe in ghosts.

While 58 percent accept the proposition that schools should be required by law to teach creationism, we might point out that the full figure does not reflect support for the truth of creationist claims. Creationists have been successful in draping their theology in a veneer of scientific jargon, and appealing to the sense many people have of "fair play" by asking merely for "equal time" in presenting their views in the classroom.

There are also 3400 Christian radio and television stations throughout the world. We would add to that that the Christian radio, television and bookstore business is thriving in the U.S., which, we submit, tends to undermine the claim that the government or culture is "openly hostile" toward the "people of faith" and engaged in a campaign to silence Christians or violate their "religious rights." And a recent study showed that those who watched or listened to Christian radio or TV were more likely to be in poor physical health and more likely to be depressed. (Koenig, 1997).

In Russia, the Orthodox Church has been protesting public campaigns which attempt to deliver information about contraception. Russia leads the world in the number of abortions it performs -- 2.5 million last year alone -- but family planning experts say that high rate is because of lack of good information about birth control technology.

One family planning group decided to promote its message by launching a tram which displays contraception messages and provides birth control information. Among the materials available are leaflets on avoiding AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The vehicle was christened "Desire," a reference to the Tennessee Williams play, "A Streetcar Named Desire."

But its first day out was less than a success. Church activists pelted the vehicle with rotten eggs, then mobbed the tram and painted the word "Fornication" on the front. According to Britain's Daily Telegraph, one Orthodox woman screamed, "Nobody -- not the United States, France or Israel -- can dictate how many Russian children should be born. They want to lead our young people to depravity."

Russia, of course, is in the midst of a resurgence of Orthodoxy which has replaced doctrinaire Marxism as a faith for many people. With its economy in transition, the Russian birthrate has declined; and the fastest growing ethnic group within the former Soviet Union happens to be Muslim. The Orthodox Church opposes all birth control measures, and many of its nationalist allies in the political appparatus see birth control as a kind of foreign plot designed to erode the population.

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Judge Upholds Ban
on ''Secularized''
Public Religious Display

Plastic Santa Doesn't
"Secularize" Nativity,
Menorah Display
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 5, 1997

A federal judge has upheld previous decisions and ruled that a religious seasonal display in front of the City Hall in Jersey City, Jew Jersey, is unconstitutional, and violates the separation of church and state. It was yet another blow to a 30-year tradition, and followed four years of legal wrangling -- at taxpayer expense -- to preserve a Christian nativity scene and Jewish menorah.

U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise rejected city arguments that the display had been rendered secular, and was therefore constitutional, by including a likeness of a snowman and a plastic Santa Clause next to the nativity creche and menorah. "I find that the display of a creche and a menorah on the lawn in front of the (Jersey City) City Hall violated the Establishment Clause notwithstanding the addition of secular items," Debevoise wrote.

That elicited a quick response from Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler who charged that this latest ruling was an "example of outright discrimination against religion." The mayor also attacked the American Civil Liberties Union which had originally challenged the display, saying "If they had their way, they would get 'In God We Trust' off our money."

Worse yet, Schundler said that while the city will reluctantly comply with the court finding, it will replace the menorah and nativity creche with a spot lighted sign saying that the religious items are missing on account of the ACLU. Attorney David Rocah, who represented the ACLU in the case said that he had never considered his group to be a "Grinch", adding "We are not prohibiting people from celebrating Christmas. We are not out to destroy Christmas ... We are not out to destroy religion. What we are out to do is prevent the government from celebrating a religious holiday."

He noted that, "It is not the business of government to celebrate religious holidays."

Tuesday's decision represented a reversal by Judge Debevoise, who had originally held that the plastic Santa and snowman had sufficiently "demystified" the religious display so that it was, therefore, constitutional. Other symbols which had been blended with the creche and menorah included a sleigh and an evergreen tree which was festooned with Kwanaza symbols.

In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the City's appeal on the case; that move let stand the Third Circuit Court of Appeals finding that the display was not a celebration of cultural diversity, but a religious statement. The Circuit Court noted that the "celebration of more than one religion cannot magically transform a government endorsement of religion into a 'secular celebration of diversity and pluralism.' " ACLU lawyers had argued in their brief that "however confusing the presence of a snowman in Bethlehem may be from a canonical perspective, a reasonable observer ... would invariably characterize (Frosty, Santa and the sleigh) for what they are -- attempts at evasion of constitutional prohibitions through superficial secular tokenism."

Mayor Schundler said that in protest of the ruling, the city will not even have its annual lighting of a Christmas or seasonal tree this year, but instead will have a ceremony to illuminate its sign blasting the ACLU.

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"Being Seen" -- the Primacy
of Public Religious Display
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 20, 1997

Come the Christmas season, and separationists take to the courtrooms and editorial pages (as we should!) to denounce the unconstitutional display of religious artifacts such as nativity creches and Menorah lights on public property. Such displays often involve complex issues, but over the years governments have gradually abandoned the practice of overtly sponsoring these religious symbols by constructing or maintaining them at taxpayer expense. The task of unpacking plastic statues of New Testament figures and illuminating them for all to see is now left to "private" groups or "volunteer" labor in order to supposedly minimize the entanglement between government and religion. More recalcitrant communities -- Jersey City, N.J. comes to mind -- will do just about anything to ensure that these religious displays remain standing, though, even if requires a shoddy attempt at sanitizing and "secularizing" such symbols by including Frosty the Snowman, Santa and some enormous Candy Cane figures.

There are 350,000 churches, mosques and temples throughout the nation; many of them sit on valuable swaths of real estate and have spacious open lawns on which they can (and sometimes do) display the symbols and scenes peculiar to their faith. "Living Nativity" scenes have even caught on as a sort of Christianized performance art, with dedicated members of the congregation shivering in the winter night cold dressed in period costumes and re-enacting the supposed events of the birth of the Christian Messiah. Historians debate the historicity of Jesus, of course, and there is some evidence to suggest that if he did indeed exist as a historical personality, he probably was not born on a "cold winter's night" but possibly in the spring. Cultural mores, scanty accounts excavated from a few verses in the New Testament, and some wishful thinking, however, have led many to believe that those "Living Nativity" displays -- or even the ones using plastic or wood -- reflect accurately some marvelous event of 1,997 years ago.

Alabama freethought activist Al Faulkenberry, that courageous foe of the courtroom prayer and religious display by Judge Roy Moore, informed me that his wife and some friends recently travelled to one town where they counted 18 churches. Most, if not all, of these churches were reportedly vocal supporters of last week's ceremony on the footsteps of the State Capitol where Christian "prayer warriors" decided to erect a nativity creche. Ironically, says Al, only a couple of the churches had bothered with similar displays on their own property.

We often and incorrectly assume that the battle over religious displays on government property, or religious rituals in public schools, is "just" a state-church separation issue. It is that, of course, but it is also more -- much more. School prayer is not just about balancing the "rights" of believers and non-believers, but involves deeper philosophical questions which many find disturbing. What about this peculiar act of prayer? Who, or what, is being prayed to? If this entity exists, why exactly does he, she, it or they require these supplications? What social, psychological and political needs are being met by this curious exercise?

The same may be asked of seasonal religious displays on public land. Religious groups, from aggressive Protestant fundamentalists and Roman Catholics to the Jewish Lubavitcher sect, are not content with erecting and confining their religious displays to the grounds of their own property. They insist on mingling their particular symbols with those venues and institutions which Americans clearly identify with the power and authority of the state. As the experience of the Faulkenberrys suggests, that one nativity creche on the grounds of the State Capitol is more important, more poignant and more significant than any "living nativity" kitsch or private display. The identification of government and the public square with religious symbols is primary.

We should appreciate something else as well. Many contemporary "prayer warriors" (often ignoring the complex history of these writings) delight in citing chapter and verse from religious books have been selected, translated and often sanitized by the world's leading clerical authorities. We might suggest, among all of the public posturing, praying, singing and clamoring for religious exercise in the public square, that these same believers might read all of their own works, and heed the advice of St. Matthew in Chapter 6, verses 5-6. He wrote, "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men ... But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut they door, pray to thy Father which is in secret..."

That might be good advice considering the rising culture war fervor about demonstrating and testing "religious rights" in the public square. Ralph Reed, are you listening?

Indeed, much of the impetus for public prayer in schools, plazas, official events -- and for gaudy, conspicuous religious display on government land -- have to do with a desire not just to pray, but, but importantly, TO BE SEEN while praying by others. After all, Christians, Moslems, Jews and every other religious group are free to build their own temples of faith and do just about anything inside which they deem to be necessary in propitiating the deity or deities of their choice. They can pray, burn incense, sing, dance, pass the plate, build nativity scenes, display candles, kneel, supplicate, gyrate, confess, handle prayer beads and engage in other behaviors which attract the attention of their cosmic host.

But at Christmas, however, it appears that isn't enough.

It is the important act of being seen by others, and of identifying religious ritual with the power of government, which -- judging by the admonition of St. Matthew -- apparently supercedes a rule concerning how one is to behave. "Being seen" supposedly exercising one's religious rights has, for many groups, become a narcissistic ritual. Freud spoke of the "narcissism of small differences," something which may account for why so many diverse religious groups -- Catholic, Protestant, Islamic -- are now aggressively moving into the public square. Baby Jesus now competes with 32-foot high menorahs from the Lubavitcher sect, and we know of at least one effort to include Islamic symbols in one public display. It won't be long before other sects join in, ironically transforming this "sacred setting" into a sort of religious swap meet.

Courts are agonizing over how to accommodate this outburst of religious display; the latest strategy seems to involve assigning only those portions of government land and buildings which have historically been venues for the exercise of free speech. It is ironic, of course, that many of the groups taking advantage of this, such as the Catholic League for Civil Rights, are no friends of the free expression portion of the First Amendment. But it has become the act of "Being Seen" which transcends for these religious movements most legal considerations, civil decorum, and in some cases, even the advice of a saint.

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Ernie, the Atheist Camel,
Killed After Fleeing Display
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 25, 1997

There were a number of reports about "Ernie, the atheist camel" who wanted nothing to do with a Sunday evening nativity pageant on the Eastern shore of Maryland.

The one-humped, 600 pound Arabian male camel fled the religious display and headed down Route 50, but unfortunately was hit by an oncoming station wagon and was killed.

Ernie had been drafted into service as part of a "living Nativity" sponsored by the Kent Island United Methodist Church in Stevensville; he made his break for freedom when the characters playing the "wise men" were changing into their costumes.

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